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How do the Times and the Journal Report a Drop in Wall Street Bonuses?

(Photo: Jon S)

As a writer, I tend to think about media bias from a different perspective than the average media consumer, and also different from academic researchers who try to identify media bias via data analysis, as described in our recent podcast “How Biased Is Your Media?”

I tend to think about subtle but telling things like word choice and sentence structure — what is the journalist emphasizing, or downplaying, and why? — but also an article’s placement, inclusion or exclusion of outside quotes, and choice of headline (which, for the record, is usually written by an editor and not the reporter him/herself).

Above all, I tend to compare articles from different newspapers that are based on the same event. This is to me one of the simplest but most powerful ways to take the pulse of a newspaper’s culture. If, for instance, two newspapers publish articles based on a simple event — a state comptroller’s report about Wall Street bonuses, for instance — one can read a little bit of institutional attitude into the two papers’ resultant articles.

Let’s imagine that the comptroller’s report announces that cumulative bonus pay has fallen 14% from last year. How should that fact be conveyed to readers? Should a reporter imply that any bonus to a banker is still too large, given the devastating damage caused by big banks over the past several years? Or, alternately: is a fall in bonuses a harbinger of future economic pain that will touch everyone? And what kind of words should be used to describe this bonus drop?

Okay, I’ll admit: this scenario isn’t imaginary at all. Consider a pair of articles in today’s N.Y. Times and Wall Street Journal, each reporting New York comptroller Thomas DiNapoli‘s report which shows that bonuses for 2011 are expected to come in 14% below 2010 numbers. Here are the headlines and leads of the two articles:

The first article:

Bonuses Dip on Wall St., but Far Less Than Earnings 

It is apparently going to take more than shrinking bank profits to put a big dent in Wall Street bonuses.

The total payout to security industry workers in New York is forecast to drop only 14 percent during this bonus season, according to a report issued on Wednesday by the state comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli. By comparison, profits last year plunged 51 percent.

“The securities industry, which is a critical component of the economies of New York City and New York State, faces continued challenges as it works through the fallout from the financial crisis and adjusts to regulatory reforms,” Mr. DiNapoli said in a statement.

The second article:

Wall Street Bonuses Shrink
New York Comptroller Says Pool Dropped 14% in ‘Difficult Year’ for Industry

Wall Street cash bonuses for 2011 are expected to have tumbled 14% from a year earlier and will likely hit their lowest level since the financial crisis of 2008, according to a report released by New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

New York securities firms will pay employees $19.7 billion in cash bonuses, down sharply from $22.8 billion in 2010.

A smaller bonus pool is the latest sign of pain for the big banks, which have been culling their ranks and reducing costs since last spring on the European debt crisis, a slowing U.S. economy and lower client trading volumes. It also has big implications for the budgets of New York state and New York City.

I will let you guess which article comes from which newspaper (you can read the entire articles via the links above), and I will let you infer what the language choices say about that paper’s culture. But I will say this: based on what our media-bias podcast taught me, I would expect that any bias that is exhibited by the journalists in question is probably trumped by the bias of the reader. We consume the media we consume in large part because it confirms our preexisting biases, even if we’re sure such biases don’t exist.